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Cemetery allows people to continue nourishing the Earth after they die

MT file photoSuzanne Willow discusses the process of digging a test hole for a future grave at the 18-acre natural burial cemetery on Willow-Witt Ranch east of Ashland.
MT file photoSuzanne Willow and her dog Izzy walk through part of 18 acres of forest and grassland designated as Oregon's first natural burial cemetery located east of Ashland.
Forest Conservation Burial Ground offers green and natural burials near Ashland

The Forest Conservation Burial Ground near Ashland has been offering green and natural burials since June of 2020. So far, 14 people have been laid to rest using methods not as harmful to the land as modern funerals and burials.

Located within the 445-acre Willow-Witt Ranch, it’s the first cemetery in Oregon to provide natural burials exclusively. Four acres of land were surveyed and are in use as a cemetery so far. Less than one-tenth of the ranch land will be devoted to this purpose.

These forms of burial are described as being a return to nontoxic burials that support the “reunion of human bodies with nature as effectively and completely as possible,” as explained on the cemetery’s website, https://theforestconservationburial.org/.

During a presentation this week about the cemetery and what’s different about such burials, staff talked about why such end-of-life options are gaining increased interest.

Basically, this cemetery allows people who lived daily in ways that were environmentally conscious to be put to rest that way after they die and even nurture the land through their body’s decomposition, said Mary Ann Perry, sexton of the cemetery.

For example, the location doesn’t take embalmed remains. The preservative is commonly a mixture of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol and other chemical solvents.

About 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid is used in the United States annually, the Green Burial Council explained.

Using such chemicals can introduce toxic materials into the soil, Perry said.

She explained that embalming fluid has only been used for a short time in human history and that not adding such chemicals has been the norm.

A video shown during the presentation stated that soldiers who died during the Civil War needed to be preserved so their bodies could be transported by train back to their homes and families.

At the burial ground outside Ashland, the container holding the person needs to be created from a biodegradable, untreated and sustainably produced material.

Wood caskets (no plywood or pressboard) and weaved caskets — wicker, willow or reed — without metal, plastic or toxic glue are allowed in the ground. So are cardboard caskets.

A shroud made of natural fabric — cotton, wool, linen or silk, for example — is an acceptable alternative to a casket. Cemetery literature provides ideas on how to choose the material for a shroud. They also sell antique linens.

This burial ground uses no plastic, cement, metal or exotic wood caskets.

The person being buried also needs to be wearing all-natural fiber clothing.

The body is buried in a shallower grave than in a conventional cemetery. This is to keep from using powered digging equipment.

Creating a hole that’s only 3 to 4 feet below the ground’s surface is most beneficial because it’s the most active part of the soil. And the soil is carefully removed for the burials and replaced around and above the body as it had been sitting before digging, Perry said.

Conventional cemeteries use underground vaults made of plastic as a way to make ground maintenance easier. That’s not done there.

Headstones typically used in cemeteries not adhering to green or natural practices aren’t used at this cemetery. Instead, each gravesite has a brass survey marker with the person’s name, as well as their birth date and date of death.

They also sell stones native to the ranch. The Cascade Range was volcanic and those stones are beautiful, Perry said.

No non-native plants are allowed on the property. Because of fire concerns, no burials that allow the person’s decomposed matter to nourish a tree planted in honor of the deceased are allowed.

Cost is about half the price of a conventional funeral in Oregon. The World Population Review reports that a regular funeral on average in Oregon costs more than $10,000. A green funeral at this cemetery can cost much less — an average of about $5,900.

The land is devoted to restoration and conservation. And the public is welcome to visit between dawn and dusk — as long as they adhere to rules of conduct.

Tours are available by request.